Tune in! Don Antonucci, CEO of Providence Health Plan, is on Moments Move Us
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New Podcast Episode: The Three Cs of Leadership: Caring, Communication, and Curiosity with Don Antonucci
What You’ll Learn:
Life has a way of orchestrating moments that align perfectly with our journey.
As you delve into the extraordinary career journey of Erik G. Wexler, President & COO at Providence St. Joseph Health, you’ll hear how he has made it his mission to prioritize human connection and foster a vibrant culture in the workplace.
Erik takes us on a transformative ride, starting with his time at Waterbury Hospital, where a chance conversation with a colleague sparked a profound realization. Together, they contemplated the transformative potential of changing the security force into a customer relations group, igniting a deep understanding of personal connections’ vital role in patient care.
Step into a world where personal stories intertwine with profound experiences as Erik highlights the critical need for cultural diversity, while fostering an environment that embraces and celebrates differences.
Themes: Vulnerability, Human Connection, Culture Building, Mentorship, Compassion, Diversity
“I was in college in Hartford, Connecticut, and I took a job as a security officer at St. Francis Hospital in Hartford. And it was my first real entry point into healthcare. It’s not that I hadn’t experienced it before. My mother once broke her hip, and I was once in a car accident, and I saw what it was like to be on the other side of those things. But being at the front line of healthcare in a way where you’re greeting people who are super scared and sometimes their life is at risk at the front door of an emergency department really impacted me on how important it is to be in healthcare and whether it was serving in the lobby of the hospital or mostly in the emergency department or on the premises of St. Francis Hospital. I always felt it was a great honor to be a security officer, and that was my entry point. I had many other years between that and eventually becoming the director of philanthropy for a hospital in Waterbury. But that was my entry point.”
“I was in the lobby of St. Francis Hospital, and it was a fairly secure facility. And those days you had to get a hall pass, right? It wasn’t too technical in those days. And this big man came in and he was rushing to go to the elevators. And as I’m supposed to do, I stopped them and said, you need to stop at the front desk and show them your ID and get a hall pass. And he got very angry and anxious and started to yell at me, and I started to yell back. The situation escalated to the point where it escalated a lot in his person, and he wound up pushing me and shoved me through a door, and I fell on the ground. And of course, other security officers showed up, and the situation got under control. I don’t think he was wrong. If you look back on that, when all said and done, this was somebody who was really scared, who needed to be with their family, who wasn’t well, and we were worried about a hall pass. And there are good security reasons for this, as we all know, but I was just a kid. I don’t know what was I 19 years old, maybe 20. I wish I had found a way to say, let me help you. Let’s walk together to the room that you need to go to, or, let me bring you over to the desk and get you. So, I think immediately what comes back to me is, I was the one that was wrong, and he was the one that was in a real time of need.”
“There are a couple of things coming out of COVID that I think we realized. One is we all got a lot more time with family, and some of that was incredibly good, and a little bit of it made it hard for us. But the good was probably the most special part of it. The other thing that came out of COVID that if we look back now, Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams, and other virtual settings that we were playing with three or four years ago were not as prolific as they are today. They are very much part of our society.”
“What [Dr. Rod Hockman Chief Executive Officer] and I and others here at Providence St. Joseph we’re working on is getting out from behind our screens. That human connection when we’re sitting in a room and we’re just talking with one another or we’re having lunch together and enjoying one another, is very much a part of ensuring that those relationships are being developed and that we’re having the opportunity to talk about very informally, ‘How do we do better for the communities that we serve?’ It can’t just be Rod and I and our executive team running around from community to community that we serve. It’s all of our leaders. I’m not a big believer in having a directive on this, and we’re seeing companies do that now, maybe for good reason. I am a believer in having a philosophy. Our leaders are entrusted very, very talented executives. So, what we’re thinking about is, ‘What’s our philosophy? How many hours a week should you be out there creating that human connection with our caregivers and also out in our communities with the people that we serve?’”
“Your schedule, my schedule, and their schedule. Those who are listening in, it’s hellacious. And sometimes meetings are backed up one after the other. I do think, though, that it’s worth taking a step back, all of us. When we think about human connection and who we are, our own renewal and recovery is extremely critical to how we create human connection. Because if we pound through a day from 07:00 a.m. until 07:00 p.m. or later and we don’t have any breaks, we’re not going to be there for the most important thing in our lives, that’s our family. We’re just not going to be able to be fully present for them. That’s bad. I’m just going to speak for myself. I do find time for myself. I’m up at 5:30 every morning working out, and when I go to the fitness center, even though I begrudge it on my walk there, I think to myself, this is my hour for myself. And I always come out of there feeling better. And then at lunchtime, I take a break and I take a walk. And when I go home and I’m sitting and having dinner with Stephanie, my cell phone is nowhere to be found, which she once taught me by seeing me answering a text and saying, very compassionately and lovingly, ‘I’ll wait until you’re done.’”
“Here’s what it’s really all about…It’s taking personal responsibility to put parameters around your own life and commitment in a way that is good for you and your family and your own health. And again, I don’t know how you get human connection if you are not feeling inspired yourself. And you’re right. Nurses, doctors, environmental service aides, techs, revenue cycle people, just any job right now, the demand in the labor crisis that we have is creating difficulty in ways that we’ve never seen in our past. I had a leader say to me, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just not going to be able to find time for myself. And I think your expectation is unfair because what will I do for my colleagues when they need me?’ And I heard her, I felt sad about that because I said to her, ‘There’s got to be a balance somewhere. And so, you may have to sign out to somebody. Maybe you pass off the baton and that person passes off the baton to you.’”
“I was back in Baltimore. I was the CEO of a place called Northwest Hospital, part of Lightbridge Health. And we weren’t there that long. And really, Steph hadn’t been feeling well. And anyway, she went in for some tests and found out that she had stage four Lymphoma. We were kind of kids. We were pretty young. I was 40. She’s six years younger than me. And so, this is kind of a big shock. Here’s the thing about what we went through. We learned a lot. And I think obviously, when you go through that, she’s doing great, doing well, but you do learn a lot about each other. And, boy, it brought us even closer than we had ever been. We had the most beautiful marriage ever. But here’s the thing that I learned, and I think this goes back to who we are, all of us. No matter who you are in healthcare, maybe whatever business you’re in, your family, and you have a chance to experience that. And in healthcare, you kind of don’t want to experience it unless you’re having a baby or something. Well, Stephanie and I found ourselves on the other side of that. Here’s what was ironic. So she got her chemotherapy from my hospital, and I sat right next to her, held her hand, and kind of endured through everything that she endured through, although she was suffering, obviously, much more than I was.
And it was only like a month or two before that that me and the executive team, we were at a retreat, and we were talking about capital deployment. And one of the things that came up was Ida Savitt. She was one of our clinical leaders. But Ida, knowing that I’m a fitness freak, she wanted to go on a run with me early in the morning before we started the retreat. And she’s probably 20 years older than me, and of course, I was like 41 or something. And we went off on this run. And for the entire time, she said, ‘We need to renovate and invest capital in the infusion center. Our cancer patients are coming in there. They’re cohorted with wound care patients. It’s not the right way to be delivering care for both of those patients and their families.’ She really made a hard play at it, and I thought, ‘Yeah, this makes sense.’ Our CFO was not as enthusiastic because he was thinking about maybe the numbers. But when all was said and done, we made the call to move forward and do the right thing. Now, who would know, like a month or two later, Stephanie and I were sitting in this setting realizing, oh, my god, the decision that this executive team made three weeks ago is so important to us now. We only wish that we were going to be in a different setting than we were in.
But I will say, Stephanie got the most incredible care, whether it was from the food service person delivering her delicious lunch and just customized for her, or it was the researchers that were working with her. Of course, the team was incredible. But here’s what I learned: When I’m sitting here making decisions with the group people what we’re going to do, it could be for my most beloved loved one. And so that’s the kind of thing you want to keep in your heart and mind as you’re doing this work.”
“Well, my colleagues that know me, what you see is what you get. I’m always working on improving myself. Always.”
“I will always try to improve myself, but I am who I am, and my mind, body, and spirit is what drives me to make good decisions and support people around me. And sometimes vulnerability is shedding a tear, and sometimes it may be being over passionate, or it could be even dispassionate to be able to help people around you. I think that too many leaders work hard at trying to be somebody other than they are, and it just doesn’t come across as being authentic. And then the relationships don’t really develop. And so, when we talk about vulnerability and leadership, it should be part of the toolbox that’s connected to our mind, body, and spirit, not to some fake way of trying to engage with people that they won’t believe.”
“We’re all developing as human beings, and some people don’t wish to improve. And I feel sad because that’s part of the joy in life. I think as time has gone on, maybe it’s age and professional maturity, I feel more committed to relationships and compassion and understanding.”
“This goes back to human connection, to support our colleagues. She’s got a lot of heavy work and responsibility. And I said to her, you know, it’s going to be okay. This is a marathon and not a sprint, and we are all behind you in supporting you.”
“That goes back to human connection, and I see it as a movement of sorts. And to be able to create joy in the workplace or even outside of the workplace, but let’s just focus on the workplace. It means that we’ve got to be able to have that eye-to-eye contact, to smile at one another. And I try whenever I start a meeting on [Microsoft] Teams to start with, ‘Hey, how was your weekend?’ Just kind of warm up the discussion a little bit so that it isn’t really just this feeling of marching right into it when we can’t be in the same room together and try to get some joy, even virtually when we do that. But I think so much joy was tamped down during the pandemic. Family members were getting sick. Some passed away, others who needed care didn’t get care. We were all working really hard. People were scared. Some weren’t getting paid. Society, I think there was a lot about our society that became more apparent that, I will speak for myself, but many of us are very disappointed about the discrimination, the lack of embracing different cultures. What’s happened? Martin Luther King was probably, I would say, one of the most beautiful people that ever set foot on this earth. And here we are almost 60 years later, and not much has changed. And so, I think that has gone into people’s frustration and disappointment and has created fear out there. And we’ve got to all take action. Enough of hope. Like, I believe in hope. I love hope. Hope alone will not get us to change our society, and then we will not have joy.”
“Culture is part of our diversity. And I like to think of diversity as cultures to learn from. And I think that as organizations work on culture, some will say, ‘Well, we’re going to have cultural change and it’s going to take years to have that change.’ Well, that may be true, I think part of culture is respecting the culture that exists. Bad culture, you want to change. But we believe in our organization that we should not homogenize the culture around us. In that, facilities and caregivers in Texas and New Mexico or in Eureka, California or in Alaska, here in the Puget Sound, in Montana and in all these places, there’s a beautiful culture that we should embrace and respect while we also try to bring forth our core values in our organization and who we are. And I think if we do that, people don’t feel like they’re being forced and try to make everything equal, homogenized in a way that doesn’t allow us to be a little bit different as human beings. We probably will have more embracing of diversity, equity, inclusion. We’ll certainly get progress on health equity, which has been a major area of discrimination in our country. While I have this moment with you and your listeners, I really want to encourage us to love culture and to enhance culture and not try to homogenize culture.”
“Part of the reason why around the world there is discrimination and war is related a lot to insecurity and people’s own internal fears. And the more you fight against those, and you look for love and embracing, the more that just disappears. And then you wind up being a happier person.”
Explore transformative stories from healthcare executives as they share impactful moments of human connection from their professional journeys.